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Waterloo-The French cavalry attack British Squares

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Uploaded on Oct 5, 2011

The Franch Cavalry Attack
A little before 16:00, Ney noted an apparent exodus from Wellington's centre. He mistook the movement of casualties to the rear for the beginnings of a retreat, and sought to exploit it. Following the defeat of d'Erlon's Corps, Ney had few infantry reserves left, as most of the infantry been committed either to the futile Hougoumont attack or to the defence of the French right. Ney therefore tried to break Wellington's centre with cavalry alone. Initially Milhaud's reserve cavalry corps of cuirassiers and Lefebvre-Desnoëttes' light cavalry division of the Imperial Guard, some 4,800 sabres, were committed. When these were repulsed, Kellermann's heavy cavalry corps and Guyot's heavy cavalry of the Guard were added to the massed assault, a total of around 9,000 cavalry in 67 squadrons.

Wellington's infantry responded by forming squares (hollow box-formations four ranks deep). Squares were much smaller than usually depicted in paintings of the battle -- a 500-man battalion square would have been no more than 60 feet (18 m) in length on a side. Vulnerable to artillery or infantry, squares that stood their ground were deadly to cavalry, because they could not be outflanked and because horses would not charge into a hedge of bayonets. Wellington ordered his artillery crews to take shelter within the squares as the cavalry approached, and to return to their guns and resume fire as they retreated.
Witnesses in the British infantry recorded as many as 12 assaults, though this probably includes successive waves of the same general attack; the number of general assaults was undoubtedly far fewer. Kellermann, recognising the futility of the attacks, tried to reserve the elite carabinier brigade from joining in, but eventually Ney spotted them and insisted on their involvement.
A British eyewitness of the first French cavalry attack, an officer in the Foot Guards, recorded his impressions very lucidly and somewhat poetically:
About four P.M. the enemy's artillery in front of us ceased firing all of a sudden, and we saw large masses of cavalry advance: not a man present who survived could have forgotten in after life the awful grandeur of that charge. You discovered at a distance what appeared to be an overwhelming, long moving line, which, ever advancing, glittered like a stormy wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight. On they came until they got near enough, whilst the very earth seemed to vibrate beneath the thundering tramp of the mounted host. One might suppose that nothing could have resisted the shock of this terrible moving mass. They were the famous cuirassiers, almost all old soldiers, who had distinguished themselves on most of the battlefields of Europe. In an almost incredibly short period they were within twenty yards of us, shouting "Vive l'Empereur!" The word of command, "Prepare to receive cavalry", had been given, every man in the front ranks knelt, and a wall bristling with steel, held together by steady hands, presented itself to the infuriated cuirassiers.
—Captain Rees Howell Gronow, Foot Guards,

In essence this type of massed cavalry attack relied almost entirely on psychological shock for effect.Close artillery support could disrupt infantry squares and allow cavalry to penetrate; at Waterloo, however, co-operation between the French cavalry and artillery was not impressive. The French artillery did not get close enough to the Anglo-allied infantry in sufficient numbers to be decisive. Artillery fire between charges did produce mounting casualties, but most of this fire was at relatively long range and was often indirect, at targets beyond the ridge. If infantry being attacked held firm in their square defensive formations, and were not panicked, cavalry on their own could do very little damage to them. The French cavalry attacks were repeatedly repelled by the steadfast infantry squares, the harrying fire of British artillery as the French cavalry recoiled down the slopes to regroup, and the decisive counter-charges of Wellington's light cavalry regiments, the Dutch heavy cavalry brigade, and the remaining effectives of the Household Cavalry. At least one artillery officer disobeyed Wellington's order to seek shelter in the adjacent squares during the charges. Captain Mercer, who commanded 'G' Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, thought the Brunswick troops on either side of him so shaky that he kept his battery of six nine-pounders in action against the cavalry throughout, to great effect:
I thus allowed them to advance unmolested until the head of the column might have been about fifty or sixty yards from us, and then gave the word, "Fire!" The effect was terrible. Nearly the whole leading rank fell at once; and the round shot, penetrating the column carried confusion throughout its extent ... the discharge of every gun was followed by a fall of men and horses like that of grass before the mower's scythe.
—Captain Cavalié Mercer, RHA.

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